Trophy hunting – bad for conservation, bad for welfare

EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Some of the hundreds of activists demonstrate against canned lion hunting outside a popular lion park near Johannesburg, South Africa, 21 March 2015.

Trophy hunting – bad for conservation, bad for welfare


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The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist in July 2015 generated a great deal of public concern and debate about the ethics and sustainability of trophy hunting.

Many species are in serious decline. Wild animals face a multitude of threats, including habitat loss, climate change, persecution, and conflict with ever-increasing human populations.

Animals belonging to some of these declining species are also targeted in large numbers by trophy hunters who often pay substantial amounts of money for the ‘privilege’ of killing them and taking various body parts home as trophies. Iconic animals such as African elephants, lions and rhinos are particularly prized. In many cases the very future of populations targeted by trophy hunters is in serious doubt.

Trophy hunting is a very contentious issue. While local communities in many parts of the world have historically hunted wild animals for a variety of reasons, including for food, as a rite of passage, and as a means of controlling ‘problem’ animals, commercial trophy hunting is not a traditional activity in and was introduced to Africa by European colonists. Just under half of African countries allow some form of trophy hunting, although the practice is banned in an increasing number.

Most trophy hunters continue to originate from North America and Europe. The United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, keeps a database of trade in species listed on its appendices. During the 10 year period from 2005-2014, the United States issued import permits for just over 250,000 trophy items. The European Union permitted the import of around half that number. While these figures only relate to those species listed on the CITES appendices that require import permits to be issued (and that excludes a large number of species), nevertheless it gives a sense of the scale at which trophy hunting operates.

Trophy hunters often pay large fees to target certain animals. In South Africa, typical fees for shooting plains game range from US$400 for a warthog to US$10,000 for roan antelope. A wild male lion might cost a hunter US$25-35,000, and an elephant US$40-60,000. In 2014, a trophy hunter from Texas bid US$350,000 for a license to shoot a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia. Hunters pay additional daily fees to hunting outfitters, as well as their travel costs and the fees for preparing and shipping their trophy.

Proponents of trophy hunting defend the activity on the grounds that it generates much-needed income for conservation and local communities in developing countries, incentivises the use of large areas of land for wildlife, and helps manage wild animal populations and deal with ‘problem animals’. However, none of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

According to 2006 estimates, trophy hunting across Africa generates an annual turnover of around US$200 million1. This sounds like a lot. In reality it represents only a tiny proportion of the Gross Domestic Product of those countries which allow trophy hunting. In their 2013 report2, Economists at Large estimated that trophy hunting generated only 1.8% of total tourism income in the sub-Saharan African countries they investigated. Moreover, the same report estimated that as little as 3% of the proceeds from trophy hunting find their way to local communities living with wildlife. 

Trophy hunting is all too often poorly regulated, and subject to corruption. The setting and allocation of quotas is often unscientific, and far from targeting older or problematic animals, trophy hunters preferentially target the biggest animals with the largest manes, tusks or horns.

In the vast majority of cases, we simply don’t understand enough about the impact of taking targeted animals out of populations to make informed judgements about its impact or sustainability. Animal societies are complex, particularly those of highly social animals such as elephants and lions. The removal of individuals from such populations can have far-reaching and highly disruptive implications, not just for the targeted animals, but also for those that remain.

Commercial trophy hunting operations also inevitably lead to the management of animals in order to supply valuable trophies (and often the trade in other animal parts and products), so as to maximise income. This can lead to serious ecological imbalances. The ultimate manifestation of this is the cruel practice of canned hunting, which involves the breeding of thousands of predators, mainly lions, in intensive captive breeding operations for the sole purpose of generating income, with no regard for animal welfare and with no conservation value whatsoever.

Under the European Union’s Wildlife Trade Regulations, which go somewhat further than CITES requirements, Member States are required to issue import permits for products from all species listed in Annex A and B (roughly equivalent to CITES Appendix I and II). Trophies of Annex B species are, however, exempt from this requirement, except those derived from Southern White Rhinoceros, Common Hippopotamus, African Elephants, Argali Sheep, Lions, and Polar Bears. Before issuing an import permit, authorities in Member States must determine that the import would not harm the conservation status or territory occupied by the population concerned. The European Commission has determined that the only obvious case of an importation not being detrimental to the survival of the species is if it is clearly beneficial to its survival, i.e. if it produces ‘significant and tangible conservation benefits’3. Member States should also determine that there are no additional concerns, such as corruption or poor management in the country of origin.

To assist Member States in this task, the EU’s Scientific Review Group (consisting of representatives from member State Scientific Authorities) meets quarterly, to provide opinions on whether import permits should be issued for trophies and other wildlife products on a species-country basis. However, there is real concern that these decisions are not being made on the basis of reliable independent evidence, and that data provided by authorities in the countries of origin are heavily relied on. The importation of trophies into the European Union therefore risks posing an additional threat to populations of threatened species.

Some countries have recently introduced restrictions or bans on the importation of trophies over concerns about its impacts on animal welfare and conservation. For example, in 2014, the United States banned the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania4. Australia banned lion trophy imports in March 2015 over ethical concerns5, and France followed suit in November 20156.

Trophy hunting is a contentious and cynical business. Selling off endangered animals to the highest bidder so they can be killed for profit doesn’t make good conservation sense. Instead it fuels corruption, causes immense suffering to individual animals, and disrupts already threatened populations of animals. That’s why I and my colleagues have tabled Written Declaration 0003/20167, which calls for restrictions on all trophy imports into the EU, and for source countries to desist from poorly regulated practices. The Declaration was supported by a joint event with the Born Free Foundation8 in the European Parliament in February 2016.

This cruel and cynical practice must end. Therefore I urge colleagues who have not signed the written declaration to do so before 18th April.

  1)Lindsey, P, P Roulet, and S Romanach. 2006. Economic and Conservation Significance of the Trophy Hunting Industry in Sub­Saharan Africa. Biological Conservation 134 (4); 455–469.

  2) Economists at Large, 2013. The $200 million question: How much does trophy hunting really contribute to African communities?, a report for the African Lion Coalition, prepared by Economists at Large, Melbourne, Australia. http://www.ecolarge.com/work/the-200-million-question-how-much-does-trophy-hunting-really-contribute-to-african-communities/

  3) http://ec.europa.eu/environment/cites/pdf/srg/guidelines.pdf

  4) http://www.fws.gov/international/permits/by-activity/sport-hunted-trophies.html

  5) http://www.environment.gov.au/minister/hunt/2015/mr20150313.html

  6) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/19/france-bans-imports-of-lion-hunt-trophies

  7) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-%2F%2FEP%2F%2FNONSGML%2BWDECL%2BP8-DCL-2016-0003%2B0%2BDOC%2BPDF%2BV0%2F%2FEN

  8) www.bornfree.org.uk

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